When is more too much? [Commentary]

The Harford County volunteer fire and ambulance service has the county government in a tight spot with regard to finances.

In addition to $2.6 million a year the county government has been providing a loosely organized coalition of private, not-for-profit fire and ambulance companies to provide paid ambulance crews in some communities, three of the private fire and ambulance services with the largest territories in terms of population, calls for service and geography are each seeking an additional $110,000 a year to add more paid crews.

This would bring to more than $2.9 million a year the county government would be paying to allow for the operation of four different paid emergency ambulance services, each of which would be run by one or more of the private volunteer fire and ambulance companies. Meanwhile, swaths of county territory would continue to be served by volunteer-only crews.

On the surface this requested increase in funding sounds like a formula to clear the way for financial shenanigans at best and, at worst, a potentially deadly situation for people in need of emergency medical attention.

Harford County Executive David R. Craig noted that the $110,000 each being sought by the volunteer Aberdeen Fire Department, the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company and the Joppa Magnolia Fire Company is a middle of the road estimate. On the high end, the three companies could end up splitting $400,000. On the low end, the total could be as low as $200,000 split three ways. This would be in addition to the $2.6 million expected to be allocated for volunteer fire and ambulance service to provide paid responders in some areas outside Aberdeen, Bel Air and Joppa.

In the proposed FY 2014 budget he sent to the Harford County Council last month, Craig left the county's annual contribution to the ambulance service where it is, at $2.6 million. He told one council member earlier this week he didn't think a good enough case had been made for increasing the allocation.

Granted, providing a paid ambulance service for less than $3 million a year could be viewed as a relative bargain. That doesn't tell the whole story of the costs, however.

With a population of about 290,000, Howard County to the south allocated $99.5 million in the current fiscal year for fire and ambulance service, though that amount was anticipated to decrease in the fiscal year beginning July 1, according to that county's proposed budget. This was comparable to Howard's police allocation of $92.5 million in the current fiscal year, with an anticipated increase in the year ahead. Howard County maintains a four government-owned and operated fire and ambulance stations plus another seven stations run by volunteers and staffed by a combination of county employees and volunteers.

In short, Howard County pays about the same each year to maintain a hybrid paid-volunteer fire and ambulance service as it does to maintain its principal police agency.

In Harford County, with a population of not quite 250,000, the allocation of $2.6 million for paid ambulance crews being increased to $2.93 million may seem quibbling over crumbs, but the reality of the situation is that in 2013, Harford County spent just shy of $20 million in support of the volunteer fire and ambulance service, including $6.8 million (roughly a third of the total) in direct allocations to the volunteer fire companies, according to the county budget.

By comparison, Harford allocated $66.5 million for the Sheriff's Office, more than three times what was spent on fire and rescue services.

Harford County's volunteer system, compared to a partially paid system in a county of similar size, is certainly a bargain, but it isn't cheap.

Given the difficulties the volunteer fire and ambulance service has had in its attempts to organize a partially paid ambulance service, and the resulting cost overruns – much of them self-inflicted by waging and thus far losing battle to prevent the paid ambulance crews from unionizing, there's reason for concern about costs rising unchecked.

The volunteer service has provided Harford County with excellent emergency medical care for generations. As a practical matter, however, it's becoming difficult for that model to be sustained, even as the fire side of the volunteer service is able to keep up with demands.

Much sharper focus must be placed on how much money the county government is spending on paid ambulance crews and the relative cost effectiveness of maintaining a divided service — before the whole operation gets out of control.

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